• Comments 0

    Why I Don’t Have a Minute For the Man on the Street

    On a recent trip to Seattle, I was amazed to find the downtown littered with fresh-faced young people holding binders and asking passerby for a minute to talk about one social issue or other.

    These, of course, are street fundraisers – paid by charities to raise money. I’ve seen the occasional one in other cities, but never this many at once.

    Street fundraiser

    Don’t be fooled – it’s not news you want

    I can’t believe this is still happening. I’m not upset that people are being paid to fundraise – it’s an essential part of the social sector, somebody’s got to do it, and they deserve to be compensated.

    What’s upsetting is the way it’s being done. No for-profit promotions professional worth their salt still thinks waylaying random people on the street is a good way to gain market share. It’s clumsy, it’s wasteful, it’s disrespectful of the people being targeted, and worst of all, it doesn’t work anymore.

    It’s interruption marketing at its worst. It belongs in the same category as telemarketers who call at dinnertime and door-to-door solicitors who use cheap tricks to delay doors being slammed in their faces. Tactics like these belong to a bygone era. Charities might as well drop flyers onto cities from planes, for all the good it’ll do them.

    In fact, the flyer drop approach might actually be cheaper than paying several people to loiter around downtown Seattle for hours every day annoying citizens and tourists.

    I thought these outdated approaches were on their way out. I was dismayed to see one of them alive and kicking in a major U.S. city.

    It makes me angry to see charities wasting their fundraising money like this. Good causes deserve better. There are new ways of doing it: subtler, more respectful, less annoying, more targeted, and (most importantly) more effective. It’s time for charities to enter the 21st century of promotions and knock off this 30 year old nonsense.

  • Comments 4

    Taking Dan Pallotta a Step Further

    Dan Pallotta says a lot of shocking things about charity. His message about our attitude towards the charitable sector flies in the face of a lot of accepted wisdom. And yet – when you really think about it, it makes sense.

     Except… there are elements of it that I agree with only conditionally; they make sense only under certain assumptions. As we listen to Dan’s words, here are some things I think we have to keep in mind:

    Dan says: charity should spend more on marketing and advertising.

    I agree, IF: the money is not spent on the same old fundraising tactics we’re all sick of already. There’s a new trend in marketing and advertising. It’s smarter, more sophisticated, more respectful, and more effective. It depends less on mass bombardment and more on targeted messaging. It’s interactive with and responsive to the people it’s trying to reach. It seeks to match the item being advertised with people who genuinely need or want it. It doesn’t rely on cheap emotional manipulation. Only on the condition that investing more money in charitable marketing and advertising will lead to this more advanced, less annoying, more productive form of charity campaigning, am I all for it.

    Dan says: more money going to charity is a good thing.

    I agree, IF: There is a parallel increase in focus on making charities accountable for the results they produce with that mony. A charitable sector that can demonstrate that it’s making a real difference in the issues we care about is a charitable sector I don’t mind giving more money to. But that means that just getting more cash into its hands isn’t enough. We have to start asking more hard questions, being more aware of what’s happening with the issues. Right now, there’s very little attention paid to that conversation. That desperately needs to change before I’ll feel comfortable giving one penny more to charity.

    I suspect that Mr. Pallotta knows all of this. Of course, he has to keep his messaging clean and simple, and he’s chosen to focus on the elements he feels are most crucial. But for us, the audience, this context is important if we are to avoid the idea that he’s simply advocating for a richer sector with permission to bombard us even more than they do now.

  • Comments 2

    Solving the Wrong Problem

    Here in Edmonton, there’s a new tech startup trying to helping nonprofit organizations reduce their costs. I debated one of their founders on television last week.

    Across the country, legislators are working hard to adjust the tax structures and reporting rules that charities live by. Across the world, legal acrobatics are being performed to create new designations for things that both do business and do good.

    All this is done with one goal: to do more good by increasing the productivity and/or efficiency and/or toolbox of organizations that are labelled “for good”. But there’s a piece missing; a colossal assumption underlying all this: How do we know whether these organizations actually do any good?

    None of the work I’ve mentioned above involves any of that accountability, as far as I can tell. We ‘help’ them improve on blind faith that, by virtue of being labeled “charity”, “nonprofit”, or “social enterprise”, they’re doing worthwhile things, and doing them well.

    As this excellent short piece from Seth Godin points out, it’s easy to get lost in a discussion of tools to such an extent that the tools become the point. We can lose sight of what we’re actually trying to get done.

    If all this work succeeds, we might end up with the lowest-cost, most perfectly administered, most perfectly legislated and taxed organizations possible. But no one will know whether they’re actually accomplishing anything, let alone anything that’s truly needed.


    What good is running if you’re on the wrong road?

    If all this work were taking place alongside an equally energetic and well-publicized movement for examining results, that would be one thing. But it’s not.

    In the absence of this conversation, all the tool-building work isn’t much good. Worse, it’s a distraction. It grabs the attention, and makes itself the focus of the conversation about improvement. Let’s put it back in it proper place: buried deep inside a broader discussion about what really works.

  • Comments 3

    Non Profit vs. For Profit (And Why I Don’t Care)

    What’s the best tool for making change: non-profits, charity, traditional for profit business, social enterprise, what?

    This is one of the big questions in the world of social benefit these days. Here are three really interesting recent articles on the subject, (here, here, and here).

    Despite its popularity, this may be the wrong question. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not a bad question. Somewhere in our evaluation of whether we want to support an organization, we should consider how the finances are managed, and make a call as to whether we’re on board with the approach.

    But this is often being asked outside the context of any particular organization, or even issue. It’s being asked as a big, blanket thing: “SHOULD CHANGE HAPPEN THROUGH FOR-PROFIT OR NON-PROFIT MEANS?!”


    Can we talk about something else, first?

    As if there could be one answer that fits every kind of change, every cause, every goal.

    This is like asking whether changemakers should use Macs or PCs; whether they should buy, lease, or rent their facilities; whether they should hold live conferences or webinars. 

    The answer, in every case, is “whatever gets the job done”.

    This for-profit vs. non-profit debate, while interesting, is just one more distraction from the real issue: accountability for real change to the cause.

    Financing, like computer systems or furniture, is a tool that organizations use to get a job done. All of these tools represent the opportunity for mismanagement, waste, skewed priorities, etc. A non-profit that overspends on luxury office chairs might damage its ability to fund its real work. But a for-profit might not do the exact same thing.

    The first question should always be the organization’s performance – how are they doing at the work they officially exist to do? All other questions flow from there.

  • Comments 2

    Follow Your Heart, But Take Your Head With You

    I saw some folks promoting an event “for charity” last week on Twitter. I had to ask – which charity? Why that one? It led to quite a long conversation, eventually drawing in the event organizer.

    She was able to report that deaths resulting from the disease they’re fundraising for (a form of cancer) have dropped significantly in the past several years. That’s a great answer, but I asked for more detail about the impact of the specific organization she’s fundraising for.

    Her reply:

    “If I was a Dr., I’d be able to say all of the above. I’m just an Auntie of a 7 year old… survivor. #lovemyjob.”

    First let me say that being the auntie of a cancer survivor is a great reason to choose to work on that particular cancer. I’m an auntie, too – I can only imagine the emotion involved.

    But if I understand it right, this woman is telling me that because she has an emotional connection to it, she shouldn’t have to answer tough questions about progress in fighting this disease, or about why her organization is the best at that.

    Clearly, she’s passionate about this issue, and works very hard on raising funds for her organization of choice.

    But the minute she decided to support a particular organization, she became more than an auntie. She became a partner in the process of change and took on a certain amount of responsibility for being informed about how that works and who she partners with.

    And the minute she decided to become a fundraiser and start asking other people to support this organization with their limited funds and time, she became directly and significantly responsible for everything they do.

    She is no longer just an auntie – she is now the representative of a charity. That means she has to either be able to answer hard questions, or direct people to those who can. That means that having her heart in the right place isn’t enough anymore. Her head needs to get in the game, too.

    Note: She did provide me with stats on how much money goes ‘directly to the cause’. Many people consider that a good barometer of an organization’s worthiness.  I’ve written and spoken about why I disagree at length in the past.

  • Comments 0

    Money Makes the World Go ‘Round?

    Over the past week, one of the biggest stories in the news and on social media is that of Karen, the bullied bus monitor. Karen is an elderly school bus monitor in New York state. A video was posted to YouTube of her charges being especially hurtful, taunting her pretty mercilessly.

    This provoked an outpouring of support for Karen, much of which took the form of a fundraising effort. The original idea was to collect enough for her to take a vacation – about $5,000. As of yesterday, though, over 30,000 people had contributed over $600,000 in total.

    This is nice, right? This lady deserves a vacation. Since she’s a senior citizen, one could argue that she deserves to retire if she wants to, and now she has that option. Although the Toronto gentleman who organized the campaign didn’t know her or ask her before doing this, it seems to be working out fairly well.

    But why, when we want to do something about a problem, is our knee-jerk reaction to throw money at it? It seems like fundraising is the go-to for every disaster, disease, or unfortunate event. When the Japanese tsunami hit, people were desperate to send cash; never mind the fact that no one in Japan had asked for or was set up to receive money.

    Fundraising is often completely out of whack with need. Does Karen the bus monitor deserve a vacation? Probably. But does she need 3/4 of a million dollars? I wonder how high-performing anti-bullying and elder care organizations feel about this many donor dollars going to Karen to spend as she sees fit.

    Maybe this is ok – we do have a money-based economy, after all. Even if money is not specifically what’s needed for every issue, maybe it’s the best option. It can likely be used to buy whatever is needed.

    But something feels fishy about this to me – something about throwing money at every problem feels like a lazy shortcut. It smacks of band-aid, smacks of quick fix. Or…maybe? What do you think, Savvy Do Gooders?

  • Comments 0

    Protect the Charity You Care About (Part 2)

    The other day, I was driving along in my car, listening to the radio. The local station was having one of their periodic charity fundraising drives – same old, right?

    But then the DJ said something that made me prick up my ears: “Donate today and be entered in a draw to win a prize”. Yikes!

    This is a prime example of a dangerous fundraising mistake I’ve seen time and time again. Let’s get one thing perfectly clear: if we receive anything of material value in exchange for a donation, we have NOT donated in the eyes of the law. We’ve made a purchase.

    Why is this important? Because a charity can’t legally give a tax receipt for making a purchase. If they do, and they get audited, they risk losing their charitable status.

    To make things worse, if what we get in return for our contribution is a prize draw entry, then not only have we made a purchase, we’ve technically purchased a raffle ticket. As I explained in my last post, that’s a whole other potential schmozzle.

    I’m not sure if my well-intentioned radio DJ knew any of this – maybe he misspoke. There are some creative ways around these rules – maybe they had found a way to keep it on the up-and-up. I don’t really know.

    But since charities are often underfunded and short staffed, this is one of those well-meaning mistakes that are very easy to make. If they don’t get caught, they may never even realize how much danger they’re in. But if they do get caught, the consequences could sink the organization.

    If you’re ever offered anything in exchange for a charitable ‘donation’, take it as a red flag. Ask the question – have they found a way to make that offer and keep out of hot water at the same time? You could end up saving them a lot of trouble.

  • Comments 1

    Protect the Charity You Care About (Part 1)

    I want to tell you about a big risk to the charities you support. I’ve seen it over and over again; good people with good intentions doing something that gets organizations they care about in serious trouble.

    Lots of people run raffles or 50/50 draws to raise money for charity. The Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission (AGLC) has very strict rules about this. Legally, you cannot run a raffle without a license. To get one, you need the help of the charity you’re supporting, you need to go to a registry office, and you need to follow the AGLC’s rules to the letter for your event.

    A lot of people don’t realize this. They go ahead and run unlicensed raffles on their own, then try to give the money to their chosen charity afterwards. This puts the charity in a really tough position. If they accept the money, they could get in a lot of legal trouble. Running a raffle without a license is considered a serious criminal offence.

    Also, the AGLC issues licenses to organizations based on official charitable status. Meaning: if a charitable organization accepts illegal raffle money, their status is in jeopardy. Without charitable status, they can’t issue tax receipts for donations. This is a big, big deal for them.

    It’s also really hard for the charity to refuse the money. Not only are they giving up much-needed revenue, it can damage their relationships with the supporters who raised it. Besides, what are the people who ran the illegal raffle supposed to do with the money if the charity won’t accept it?

    The whole thing can become a real mess. So here’s what we do – play by the rules. Work with your charity and do the right paperwork. That way, you can go ahead and have a fundraiser that’s a win for everybody, and a risk to nobody.

  • Comments 0

    Mo Money Mo Disaster Problems?

    Just over a week ago, a 6.0 earthquake hit Italy. The people over at SourceFed (a new YouTube site I enjoy greatly) covered it as part of their daily video rundown of current events.

    The SourceFed folks are, in a word, awesome. Their version of the news is always fun, fast, and insightful, and they’re very up front about the fact that they have opinions and biases like anyone else. I’m a fan.

    In their coverage of the earthquake, they talked about the sad loss of historical structures and the people who were displaced. They talked about the ongoing efforts of the Italian government to shelter those people.

    Then, the hosts promised viewers to find out where we could send money to help asap.

    Hold the phone. What?

    Tragic event – check. Natural desire on the part of any red-blooded human being to help – check. Automatic assumption that means sending money to anyone collecting it – nope.

    Don’t get me wrong – I know this is common practice. Whenever a tragedy occurs, we start collecting money. Sometimes, it’s exactly the right thing to do. But it’s not always the right thing, and it’s rarely as simple as just finding somewhere to send it.

    The Japan tsunami taught us that there are times when money is not what’s needed. The Japanese government had their hands full with an emergency response that was fully funded from the get-go, and donor-funded charities clamouring to get in there and ‘help’ only added to the burden.

    The Haiti earthquake taught us that even when tragedy happens in a poor country, boatloads of money flowing in through hundreds of agencies don’t improve anything. Having all those well-funded but uncoordinated actors running around trying to ‘fix’ things can lead to bigger problems, and waste the precious money that was given with such wonderful intentions.

    So before you send disaster relief money anywhere, ask yourself two things:

    1. Is money the form of help that’s really needed?
    2. Which organization has the best chance of really having an impact with the money?
  • Comments 0

    Before You Fundraise

    One of the tasks charity volunteers are most often asked to do is fundraise. I’ve written before about why that is, but what about the consequences?

    Being asked to fundraise is actually a major request, in my opinion. You’re being asked for more than your time and energy. You’re being asked to put your reputation and your relationships on the line. If it goes badly, you can come across as pushy, disrespectful, and worse.

    On the other hand, it could also be a chance to invite people to participate in something rewarding and wonderful. So how can we make sure that when we fundraise, we’re getting the positive outcomes and avoiding the negative? Here are some tips:

    • Make sure you’re educated about the organization and/or program you’re fundraising for. Be prepared for questions, and know where to quickly find any answers you don’t already have. Consider using the 5 Questions to make sure you have a good basic understanding.
    • Make sure you’re fully on board with the organization and/or program you’re raising money for. If you’re not passionate about their worthiness yourself, you’ll have a hard time asking others to invest.
    • Before asking, consider why the prospective donor might want to give. Is this an issue that’s relevant to them personally? Why should they care?
    • Remember that the giving experience has to work for the giver, or it isn’t going to work for long. The only good reason for them to give is that it will provide them with the opportunity to do something they want to do; something rewarding and fulfilling.
    • Never, never trade on personal relationships, favours owed, or guilt of any kind to pressure someone into giving. That might work in the short term, but it will damage both your relationship with the giver and the organization’s reputation.

    I’m sure there are many, many other things that could be included in this list, but the bottom line is that by being informed and respectful, you’ll avoid most of the common pitfalls.

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